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Republicans slam Trump's Syria pullout: 'Disaster,' 'Betrayal,' 'Mistake'

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the "withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime."
Image: Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., takes questions during a press conference on Capitol Hill on March 25, 2019.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., takes questions during a press conference on Capitol Hill on March 25, 2019.Carolyn Kaster / AP file

A long list of Republicans — including several top allies of President Donald Trump — lined up in vehement opposition Monday to the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the northern border of Syria and allow a Turkish operation there.

The announcement marked a major blow to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, which the U.S. relied upon heavily as the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State militant group in Syria — and prompted outrage among GOP lawmakers.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement that "a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime."

"And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup," he added. “I urge the President to exercise American leadership to keep together our multinational coalition to defeat ISIS and prevent significant conflict between our NATO ally Turkey and our local Syrian counterterrorism partners."

In a lengthy tweetstorm, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a fierce Trump loyalist, tore into the decision, calling it a “disaster in the making.”

Graham predicted the move “Ensures ISIS comeback,” “Forces Kurds to align with Assad and Iran” and “Destroys Turkey’s relationship with U.S. Congress,” and called it a “stain on America’s honor for abandoning the Kurds.”

“I feel very bad for the Americans and allies who have sacrificed to destroy the ISIS Caliphate because this decision virtually reassures the reemergence of ISIS. So sad. So dangerous,” Graham tweeted. “President Trump may be tired of fighting radical Islam. They are NOT tired of fighting us,” he added.

In a series of tweets, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said it would be "DISGRACEFUL if we sat idly by while Turkey slaughters the Kurds, as public reports suggest that Turkish leader Erdogan explicitly told President Trump he intends to do."

Nikki Haley, who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations for almost two years, tweeted, “We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back. The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria.”

“Leaving them to die is a big mistake,” she added, before including a “#TurkeyIsNotOurFriend” hashtag.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a Twitter post, “If reports about US retreat in #Syria are accurate, the Trump administration has made a grave mistake that will have implications far beyond Syria.”

“It would confirm #Iran’s view of this administration & embolden then to escalate hostile attacks which in turn could trigger much broader & more dangerous regional war,” he added.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, another strong supporter of the president, tweeted that abandoning the Kurds was a “HUGE mistake.”

“They've never asked us to do THEIR fighting-just give them tools to defend themselves. They have been faithful allies. We CANNOT abandon them,” Huckabee wrote.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said in a statement that Trump's decision would "likely result in the slaughter of allies who fought with us, including women and children."

"And before Turkey butchers innocent Kurds, Erdogan should carefully consider his privileged status as a NATO member. The American people don’t partner with genocidal regimes," Sasse added.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a Trump critic, weighed in, too, tweeting that the move was a “betrayal.”

“It says that America is an unreliable ally; it facilitates ISIS resurgence; and it presages another humanitarian disaster,” Romney said.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called the decision "terribly unwise" in a statement to NBC News.

Trump responds

Trump initially hit back against the torrent of criticism in a series of tweets in which he said he would "totally destroy and obliterate" Turkey's economy if the country "does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits."

However, when asked by reporters at White House even hours later for his response to criticism from McConnell, Haley and others, Trump said he respected their opinions.

"I have great respect for all the people you named. They have their opinion," Trump said.

"Many people agree with it very strongly," he added. "I understand both sides of it."

"There has to be an endgame," he continued. "I think what we’re doing is the right thing."

Meanwhile, Brett McGurk, the former U.S. special envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, also forcefully rebuked Trump’s decision, calling it “totally incoherent" during an interview with MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”

McGurk, who resigned from his post last December in protest over Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would begin pulling troops out of Syria, as well as over the resignation of then-Defense Secretary James Mattis, voiced concern that the withdrawal of American forces will imperil the SDF.

“If the Kurds now have to face an attack from Turkey, they are going to pull off that objective and these fighters may well get out,” McGurk said, adding that “this is no way for presidents — any president — to make the most consequential decisions of war and peace.”

Former NATO commander James Stavridis, who joined McGurk on the program, likened the withdrawal of U.S. troops to opening “Pandora’s box” and warned that Trump’s decision will likely “have a ripple effect through our entire global structure of alliances.”

"Everyone was absolutely flabbergasted by this," Stavridis said.

The wave of criticism against Trump comes as the U.S. military has moved its forces away from the Turkish border with northern Syria, and after the White House said Sunday night that Turkey would soon begin an operation in a part of northeastern Syria where it wants to resettle Syrian refugees — and that U.S. forces wouldn't be involved.

Analysts and Kurdish-led forces said Monday that the decision risks further destabilizing the war-torn region, undermining the fight against ISIS and sparking a wider conflict between Turkey and Kurdish fighters.

Syrian Kurds — whom Turkey sees as a threat — currently control much of the area close to the border with Turkey, where Ankara hopes to create a so-called safe zone. The Turkish government has long considered Kurdish fighters in Syria as a threat linked to the PKK, a Kurdish group in Turkey that has waged a decadeslong insurgency against the government and is considered a terrorist group by the United States. But the U.S. has relied on the Kurdish fighters who lead the SDF as its most effective partner in the fight against ISIS in Syria.